‘The storm defined us’
By Jeff Noble
Exactly a year after a deadly tornado tore through the Laurel County community of East Bernstadt, it was snowing outside.
It was in stark contrast to the fury and devastation that pierced the Friday night sky of March 2, 2012.
And last Saturday evening, the community and county came together to remember those six people who perished in the tornado, and to say a heartfelt “Thank You” to those who responded when East Bernstadt needed them most.
A crowd of more than 100 persons came to the special service, called “Rebuilding Hope,” that was held at the First Baptist Church of East Bernstadt. A comforting piano solo greeted those who came in from the snow and cold, and as neighbors and community warmly greeted each other, they sat down to listen, to look, to pray, and to heal.
“You were the first people who started the healing process. Because of you, the community came together,” the church’s senior pastor, Brother Norm Brock told first responders in the crowd.
That group included volunteer fire fighters, law enforcement officers, emergency medical service personnel, and others connected to serving in the line of duty when the tornado touched down.
When Brock asked members of the East Bernstadt Volunteer Fire Department to stand up, there was thunderous applause. Another round of applause came for members of the Laurel County Sheriff’s Department, who were also recognized. And he especially thanked those in the community from all walks of life who volunteered their time and talents to rebuild and recover.
There was singing by the church’s “Worship Team” headed by worship pastor Glenn Toney. Before that, he spoke to the audience.
“As we look back and remember, we must look back at our loss. Let’s pray together. … We remember the sirens, those who came together and we remember the hurt. … And how hard it is to recover. … God, in our worst times, you send us good people to serve, and we look to you.”
Toney and the worship team sang, an upbeat Contemporary Christian song called “Your Grace Is Enough.” The six members encouraged those inside the church to lift their eyes to the large projection screen, to utter the lyrics that came up on the screen, and fill their voices — and hearts — with the song’s message.
It was an uplifting, encouraging moment.
Laurel County Judge-Executive David Westerfield told the audience that being together at the service reminded him of what happened a year ago when the community responded.
“You all were there there to help restore their faith, and to help restore hope. You would do it again today. You served with asking for anything. That means a lot. It means a lot to those people who were suffering. It’s been one year today. We’re still rebuilding and reorganizing, and it’s not easy. But we have people here who want to give, and give all. It’s a gift from God, and a gift from the heart. Never forget what a community we have, and never forget your neighbors. Don’t ever let that leave your heart,” he said.
After Westerfield spoke, a video was shown on the projection screen. Scenes of the destruction, the rebuilding and the healing appeared for the next seven to eight minutes. With music playing as the devastation gave way to recovery, those in the church reacted with high intensity.
Some nodded their heads as they recalled a neighbor’s home destroyed. Some wept. All of them remembered.
After the video, Laurel County Sheriff John Root came to the podium. He began by recognizing two groups who played a major role in the community’s rescue and recovery — the East Bernstadt Volunteer Fire Department and the First Baptist Church of East Bernstadt.
“They had a command center, an animal shelter, a place to eat. It was a gathering place. You guys just did an outstanding job,” Root said as they stood up and accepted the crowd’s applause.
When the church was singled out, he added, “I tell you, folks, Walmart ain’t got nothing on you. They fed you, they clothed you, you could come in, get a hug and a prayer. We owe this church a lot.”
Root closed by quoting a Bible verse from John 16:33, and added, “I completely understand. The moral is, don’t question this tragedy. But if it ever happens again, I would want to have the same people who stood by me (on the night of the tornado).”
Brock reminded the audience that all of them had memories of March 2, 2012.
“You have memories of that night. All of us can tell you where we were. It’s incredible how a storm can leave a mark on our lives. Life has a way of leaving a storm in your life. The storm defined us.”
He later asked them to pray to remember those who lost their lives, and those who lost everything. In his prayer, Brock asked “that we not be marked by the storm, but by the hope that comes.”
After the prayer, he finished by saying, “It’s impossible to say ‘Thank You’ to everybody who helped, but, ‘Thank You.’”
The service ended with a piano playing. At the keys was Gary Adamson, who played and sang a song called “I Need You.” Brock invited everyone for a meal next door at the church’s Christian Life Center, and after blessing the food the crowd went to eat.
Shaking hands with church members, Brock greeted Phillip Jackson, Jr. and his father Phillip.
Father and son both hugged the pastor.
“Phillip Jr. lives on Whitaker Lane, near Arthur Ridge Road. His home was completely blown away. His brother Jason was inside, but he survived. Phillip Jr. had a trailer and it was gone, so we and other church groups helped to build him a new house,” Brock noted.
“I appreciate what you all did,” said his dad, Phillip Jackson.
At the dinner, Phillip Jr. and his sister, Michelle Durham spoke about the service.
“It means people helping each other, and that’s great,” he noted.
“It’s been a difficult year. We’re just thankful to be here. People are wonderful,” Durham added as she held back tears.
Before leaving, his dad spoke. “Words just can’t describe it. This church has done so much to help build my son a house. At one time, there were 32 people over three days helping to build his house. Tonight was a show of support. This church is a backbone of the community.”
Judy Nicholson remembered the past year and stated the service brought everyone in the community back together.
“At first, you do feel hopeless after the tragedy. But you do take care of people and help them get back on their feet. Tonight was our way of saying we haven’t forgotten. This reinforces the fact that we took care of each other. And we didn’t forget,” said Nicholson, the executive director of the United Way of Laurel County.
Between bites of pulled pork and greeting folks, “Brother Brock” summed up the significance of the special service.
“It’s not only to remember those who died, but those who served and helped together. I’ve talked to several people who rebuilt their homes, or moved to new places and they’re rebounding well. You see the sheer devastation on people’s faces then, and tonight you remember that look of loss that night a year ago. Now you see their faces the look of hope.”